The Fallacy of Limited Compassion

This was originally posted at Jewschool.

When news hit that three Israeli teenagers had gone missing in the West Bank, the response from the Jewish world was immediate and intense. The assumption that Eyal Yiftach, Gilad Shaar, and Naftali Frenkel were kidnapped by Palestinians seems now to have been confirmed, but the details are sparse and the story is still developing. The abduction of children is an inexcusable offense. There is no moral justification for such an act. I am not writing to give excuses for this crime and I sincerely hope that these boys are found and returned to their families safely. But I do think that it’s instructive and important to take a step back and examine our responses to such tragedies.

A few short weeks ago, we learned that two Palestinian teenagers, Nadem Syam Nawara and Mohammad Mahmoud Odeh were shot and killed by the IDF during a protest. Despite the fact that there were three angles of video footage, independent eyewitness testimony, and hospital reports, my Facebook Wall filled with comments from Jewish friends insisting that we don’t know what really happened. For all we know, they argued, Nawara and Odeh might have been killed by Palestinians in an effort to make the IDF look bad. Some went as far as to claim that the boys might still be alive. Why is it that with far less information, none of my Jewish friends are spinning fantastic theories around the kidnapping of Yiftach, Shaar, and Frenkel? 

The reason, I think, is that we are burdened with ethnic blinders that impose artificial limits on our capacity for compassion. But isn’t it normal to care more about our own? Isn’t that just human? Of course it’s normal. There’s nothing unusual about caring more for our own. But when caring for those closest to us is twisted into an active neglect of the suffering of others, we lose some of our humanity in the process. Compassion is not a zero-sum game. It’s not a limited resource. Caring deeply about our family, co-religionists, and compatriots doesn’t have to mean ignoring the suffering of people from other families, religions, and nationalities. This, in a nutshell, is the bedrock conceptual error of political Zionism. Contrary to what Ari Shavit might have you believe, there is no logical reason why the establishment of a homeland for Jews in historic Palestine had to involve the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. To be sure, the Zionists in power at the time believed that it did, but this came from an ethnonationalist, settler-colonial ideology, not from logical or empirical necessity. And the legacy of this ideology is the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

So how do we fix it? How do we interrupt the cycle of violence and suffering? As the old civil rights adage goes, the opposite of slavery is not freedom, but community. To end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we need to build a new kind of community. A community where the suffering of the Odeh and Nawara families are not met with knee-jerk suspicion and hostility, but with compassion. A community where we hear the blood of our Palestinian brothers and sisters screaming out to us from the ground. A community where the kidnapping of any child, whether by the IDF or by Palestinian militias, is unacceptable. A community that works together across the ethnic divide to fight oppression and sees in tragedy an opportunity not for further ethnic entrenchment, but for solidarity. A community where team Israel and team Palestine are united under the flag of team Humanity. Sound utopian? If you will it, it is no dream.


The Top 5 Reasons Why BDS Is Winning

This was originally posted at Jewschool.

In many ways, 2013 was a breakthrough year for the BDS movement. High-profile individuals like Stephen Hawking heeded the call, efforts to shut down a BDS event in Brooklyn College backfired in a dramatic and public fashion, and the American Studies Association voted overwhelmingly to join the academic boycott. Here are the top five reasons why the BDS movement is winning.

1) BDS is a non-violent way that ordinary people who care about Israel-Palestine can make a difference.

The spectacular twenty year failure of the so-called peace process has created an enormous amount of frustration in people who care about Israel/Palestine. The ineptitude of the United States, the silence of the EU, the impotence of the UN and the impunity with which Israel continues to make life worse for the Palestinians have all contributed to this frustration. The BDS movement is a morally sound way for ordinary people to do something. By putting non-violent but effective pressure on the State of Israel, BDS offers people of conscience a way to participate in a moral struggle to restore Palestinian rights.

2) The BDS call marks a shift away from a discourse of nationalism towards a discourse of human rights.

Perhaps the most brilliant part of the BDS call is its refusal to endorse any particular political solution. By remaining agnostic on the one-state/two-state debate, the BDS movement is able to both create alliances and maintain a laser-like focus on the rights of the Palestinian people. Tactically, this means that people who think there should be two-states can participate in the movement alongside their one-state fellows. Ideologically, when liberal-minded people compare the rights-based first principles of the BDS movement to the ethnonationalist first principles of Israel and its defenders, the former are much more appealing.

3) Israel and its supporters think that they have a PR problem, when in reality they have a human rights problem.

The stratagems employed by the Israeli government and its supporters against the BDS movement can be summed up as follows: Delegitimize the critics and change the subject. The tactic of delegitimizing the critics yields a mantra-like repetition of the double-standard argument: “Why are you singling out Israel? There are so many other countries in the world with worse human rights records!” This criticism only makes sense as an interpretation of motive, the obvious implication being an unstated and pernicious prejudice on the part of BDS supporters. The problem, of course, is that this rhetoric amounts to little more than a thinly-veiled ad-hominem attack. People have all sorts of motivations for caring about, or advocating for one cause over others. Some of these motivations are rational and some of them are irrational. What none of us do is sort through all of the possible causes in the world, come up with a scale for which is most morally pressing, and work on them in order. Human beings are simply not built that way. Now if one of the irrational motivations behind BDS support in a particular instance is prejudice against Jews, that’s a problem and it must be brought to light. But absent any evidence of such prejudice, the double-standard argument falls flat.

The tactic of changing the subject has yielded the ham-handed efforts we have seen over the past few years to re-brand Israel as a gay-friendly, environmentally-friendly, incubator of hi-tech innovation. This too is not particularly persuasive. Israel could invent a renewable energy source to replace fossil fuels and people of conscience would still have a problem with the fact that the state denies Palestinians their basic rights.

4) The leaders of the BDS movement are vigilant and disciplined when it comes to the matter of antisemitism.

Whenever the leaders of the movement get a whiff of antisemitism, whether at a rally, or with would-be solidarity activists, they are quick to call it out and condemn it. This both makes the job of delegitimizing their advocacy more difficult and it also creates a stark contrast with their pro-Israel attackers some of whom have made alliances with racist Islamaphobes.

5) Despite being a regional superpower, the State of Israel and its citizens are incredibly susceptible to pressure from the United States and Europe.

As an embattled settler-colonialist society, Israel is subject to two opposing forces. The first is a deeply pathological siege mentality. This manifests as the belief that no matter how they behave towards the Palestinians, the whole world will always and irrationally be against them. But more powerful than the siege mentality is a deep desire to be a part of the world. In this way, Israel likes to think of itself as existing socially and culturally somewhere in-between Europe and the United States.

It’s true that BDS operates on both of these forces. That is, it does in a way feed Israel’s siege mentality in so far as many Israelis believe that they are being unfairly targeted. But it also plays against Israel’s desire to be a normal citizen of the world. If I am correct in asserting that Israel’s desire for inclusion is stronger than its siege mentality, then the net effect of BDS pressure will be that Israelis start to feel isolated from the world and this isolation will in turn force them to reconsider their policies towards the Palestinians. I believe we are already seeing signs of this pressure begin to take effect.

While 2013 marked an important year for the BDS movement, the subject is still toxic in many Jewish circles. My hope for the new year is that Jews around the world will decide to have a substantive conversation about Israel-Palestine in general and about BDS in particular. After all, it is our moral responsibility as human beings to do everything we can to bring an end to the ongoing tragedy of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.


A Scale For Racism

As a result of the fact that racism is a subject that is poorly understood and seldom discussed openly, it can be hard to identify when a statement is racist and even more difficult to know whether it is the sort of statement we ought to condemn in the strongest of terms. Here is a scale of antisemitic/racist statements about Jews:

1) False Belief: “Jews have horns.”

2) Light Prejudice: “Jews are cheap.”

3) Strong prejudice: “The Jews control the banks.”

4) Demonizing Prejudice: “The Jews caused the global recession.”

5) Eliminationist Prejudice: “The Jews are dangerous and must be killed.”

It is my belief that the first two categories, while certainly racist are not cause for severe condemnation. I would therefore draw a line between the second and third categories. Of course a statement that falls into categories 1 or 2 might indicate stronger underlying prejudices, but this is not necessarily the case and without further evidence of strong prejudice, I think it is inappropriate to react harshly to such statements.

For a more extensive discussion of the problem of racism and antisemitism, check out episodes one and two of my new podcast Four Cubits.


Seeing Past The Wall

This piece was originally posted on Jewschool

For almost two decades, my relationship with the Western Wall, or Kotel as it’s known in Hebrew, has been deeply fraught. Having been raised in a religious Zionist family, I was taught as a child to revere “these stones that have the hearts of men” as sacred. But one year, when I was 15 years old, I had an experience at the Wall that changed all that.

It was the holiday of Shavuot and the custom in my hometown of Jerusalem, was for people to stay up all night studying Torah and then walk to the Kotel to pray at dawn. Having participated in an early prayer, I was on my way out of the plaza when I spotted a few dozen non-Orthodox men and women gathered in the parking lot. Before they were able to get very far into their egalitarian service, the group was surrounded by a jeering mob of ultra-Orthodox thugs who yelled insults and threw garbage and dirty diapers at them. I remember standing with the non-Orthodox group in solidarity until the police arrived and forced us to leave.

Today, I am no longer a religious Zionist. For the past four years I’ve been working on a film about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has upended the way I think about Israel, Zionism, and my own Jewish identity. Indeed, I now know that the Western Wall plaza is actually the site of a disturbing crime. A mere two days after capturing the Old City of Jerusalem in 1967, the Israeli military approached the residents of the Moroccan quarter, which ended just meters from the Western Wall, and asked them to leave. When they refused, their houses were demolished and they were expelled. More than one hundred Palestinian families were made homeless that day and at least one woman was killed during the demolitions. They were not the first Palestinians to be treated by the State of Israel in this manner and they would not be the last.

In a way, the internal Jewish dispute over who gets to pray at the Kotel is analogous to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The logical and just solution is for everyone to be able to share the space equally. But one group claims exclusive rights and uses the violence of the state as a vehicle to maintain its privilege there. The difficulties in achieving a just solution are not practical so much as they are psychological and emotional. Moreover, the problem is not the presence of Orthodox and non-Orthodox worshippers in the same space. The problem is the inequitable orientation of the police toward the two groups.

I’m hopeful that the latest proposal by Natan Sharansky to solve the problem of non-Orthodox prayer at the Kotel will work. After all, most Israelis do recognize that Jews of different stripes have an equal right to pray at the Western Wall. And what a small step it would be to go from that to seeing the other half of the population living between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, along with their brothers and sisters in exile, as having an equal right to share the land. Perhaps it’s time to shift our focus from “the stones with hearts of men,” to “the men with hearts of stone."


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